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Ice to Open Water Tactics - Winnebago System

Should I hit the ice? How about drop the boat? Maybe cast shorelines? These are just some of the questions that are running through my head right now as another hard water season is coming to an end. With the timing of this article, many of us could quite possibly do all the above… within the same day! I think most of you will agree with me, both open and hard water fishing each have their own lovable attributes. The one kicker during this time is that one cannot use the “sitting out in the boat on a warm day” thought because no matter where you find yourself on the system right now, it’s still going to be a bit chilly.

Mother Nature sure got a few of us worried when she turned on the heater, right before sturgeon spearing! We “weathered” through and it turned out to be a successful season for some! With spearing out of the way, I can focus on the species that will drive me the rest of the year… the walleye.

We are on the verge of the full-blown run. The fish have “staged” and many are on their way up to the spawning grounds; some are already there. With the very weird warmups we have had this ice season, I’m sure some of our sought-after eyes have been a bit confused. At different times during this ice season, the rivers have been stacked with high numbers of fish, including the walleyes. HUGE schools of walleyes have been located in various locations around our system. I have seen videos of them this year, just cruising, almost in a zombie-like state. I can’t help but to think… are these fish just waiting for the spawning alarm to go off? When it does, it will be a rat race to the finish line.

The best thing about this time is that we have so many options. It’s no secret, the rivers are the fish highways. To have the best odds at a successful trip, we need to target the rivers and the river channels. With the temperatures the way they are, it makes it difficult to sometimes reach these locations via ice.

When I look at late ice on our system, I look to many areas… but Lake Poygan is certainly towards the top of the list. Lake Poygan ice has been great this season but as with early ice, late ice on this lake can be absolutely phenomenal! Because Poygan is usually the first to lock up, it’s usually the last to break.

Lake Poygan is closest lake to the northern spawning marshes and it has a narrow river channel, aka the

Wolf River, running through the eastern sector of the lake. Usually my travel means is via foot during this time but that all depends on how the ice holds. Creeping out, as close to the river channel I can safely get, is usually what my plan always consists of. My goal is to reach as much current as I can. The current shows itself when I drop down and my bait drifts to one side of the hole. During this time, I actually begin jigging a lead-head with a shiner; colors coming down to personal preference and weight dependent upon current strength. I think a simple jig/minnow combo is deadly for this time as it creates minimal resistance in the current, and the submissive dangling of a meal in front of passing fish is a direct result of this setup.

The numbers of walleyes that travel through Poygan is just incredible. While there are many examples that show the movements of them, the best is a tagged fish certificate I received from the DNR a couple years back. In this certificate, you see that the walleye was tagged in a marsh, north of Lake Poygan, in early April. Just over a year later, I caught that fish again but in Lake Winnebago. To put that in perspective, that’s over 83 miles of waterways in which this walleye traveled before touching my hands. That was just one way…

Knowing the movements and the timing is key to our late ice/early open water fishing. Looking at just this one example (the certificate), one could possibly assume that this particular fish traveled through Lake Poygan at the end of February, possibly early March, on its way to the marsh. The time is now to get on these fish and Lake Poygan offers us just that.

So you want to start the open water season early? Well, it’s time to break some ice at the launch and get that boat in the water! Here again, we are going on the same concept of hooking up with a river. As these fish move, being able to safely access current is always a great idea in my book. When you’re in a boat, you really don’t have to worry about getting wet… usually.

I really love my ice fishing and will be on the ice as long as I can, but if I am missing out at hooking into, and ultimately releasing some of the big, pre-spawn female walleyes our system holds, well then the ice gear needs to go. I have seen pictures of people floating down our rivers on ice chunks, jigging, and catching fish, before being picked back up by their boating buddies. I highly do not suggest attempting this but this brings up an area to take note. From time to time we hear of a boat that gets sandwiched between a pair of large “ice bergs”. The result is usually a damaged boat so be sure to be aware of your surroundings!

If you’re hitting the rivers in a boat, the thumper/floater or a jig/minnow combination is all that is needed to catch fish. We aren’t going to get into detail on these methods, as I spoke about them in detail in a past article, which was specifically regarding the spawning run. This article and many more can be found on the on-line portion of Badger’s website ( Remember, this is area is free to all current Badger subscribers!

The last area is one of my favorite ways to fish for the pre-spawn fish: Shoreline Casting. The problem to this is that there is a very good chance that we cannot access a location good enough to get in effective casts. Sometimes, ice dams find themselves eliminating locations to target due to their locations of buildup. I can sure tell you that if you are to walk all the way out to cast the shorelines under Highway 41 Bridge (Butte des Morts), and the closest pilings are filled with ice, you will certainly not be a happy camper during your walk back...

When I’m casting shorelines, including bridge pilings, I love big, slow moving baits. Husky Jerks are my favorite. As with the thumper/floater rig, I will not use anything that has less than three sets of trebles. These fish are on a mission, and if the lure is big, and easy to quickly snatch up, it’s going to get chomped on. I really like to cast around structure so the bad thing is that my lure costs greatly increase due to losses on snags.

We are really blessed here on the Lake Winnebago System. As always, we have so many options as to what type of fishing we partake in and what tactic to utilize. The best thing about this time is that we can still keep the ice fishing option in the box… for a little while at least. As we all prepare to take on the challenges the system brandishes this year, remember, there are some great rewards it can release! If one tactic isn’t working on that given day, do not throw it out of the equation! It can sometimes show true promise the next day… or even hour. Please utilize all appropriate safety aspects to the fullest during this time… and every time! I always have on my life jacket and you should too. I sincerely hope you are all able to cap off the hard water season with a bang! Before long, we’ll be sitting on a reef, watching bobbers plop, in 80+ degree days.

Until next time, “Tight Lines. Stay Dry.”


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